There is no justice on the earth, they say.
But there is none in heaven, either.
Pushkin Mozart and Salieri
Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus (1979) is constructed as an inquiry into the nature of God and God’s relationship with Man. Milos Forman’s eponymous film (1984) deals with the same subject. It is a faithful adaptation of the play whose main theme is at a juncture of art, religion and philosophy.
Shaffer is not however the first writer who turned the rivalry of Antonio Salieri (1750 – 1825) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) into a story of cosmic dimensions. Alexander Pushkin wrote a short play Mozart and Salieri in 1830. He furnished the story of a “poisonous” relationship between the two composers with a theological argument of God’s injustice to ordinary men.
O heaven, where,
Where is the justice, when the holy gift,
Immortal genius, comes not as reward
For any burning love or self-denial,
Labor, diligence or prayer, but lights
Its radiance instead in heads of folly
In Pushkin’s play, Salieri is so incensed by God’s injustice that he assumes the role of the defender of all mediocre men and women, “us children of the dust”, who must be protected from God’s negligence and favouritism towards men of extraordinary qualities. The similarities between Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri and Shaffer’s Amadeus are so striking that Shaffer’s claim he was not aware of Pushkin’s play at the time of writing Amadeus is rather surprising.
The film’s narrative frame is Salieri’s confession, made in a mental asylum at the end of his life, that he killed Mozart because he could not stand his own mediocrity and Mozart’s blessedness. Ama-Deus is apparently beloved by God. Salieri initially believes that he made a pact with God. In his youth, he promised to be entirely devoted to God in exchange for being endowed with musical talent. All events in his life suggest that God agrees to the bargain and keeps his side of it. A native of a provincial town in Lombardy, Salieri is transported to Vienna, a musical capital of Europe at that time. He becomes Hofkapellmeister achieving, apparently with God’s help, all that was possible to achieve on the musical scene of the continent in the second half of the eighteenth century.
And then Mozart arrives. Salieri realises that his rival’s music is infinitely better that his own. It is now clear to him that Mozart is an instrument in God’s hands. Mozart’s music is of such beauty that it could only be created under divine inspiration. Salieri’s music is mundane, Spirit-less, Mozart’s music is miraculous, spiritual, infused by the Holy Spirit (pneumatic). The former’s music is of this world, the latter’s is outworldly – “the very voice of God! […] an absolute, inimitable beauty.” (Amadeus’s script).
Salieri feels cheated by God. He thought he did everything to be rewarded but God chose Amadeus who did not deserve this honour. Infuriated by God’s injustice, he apparently poisons Mozart in order to take revenge on God. Salieri probes into the nature of divinity and comes to conclusion that God is not on the side of ordinary men whose talents are either non-existent or limited. Disgusted with God’s injustice and frivolity, he creates a new church for mediocrities and sees himself as a pope of the masses. The film ends with his benediction and absolution to all people of modest intellect and unremarkable talents.
In the film’s final scene, Salieri talks to the camera. He is addressing the audience which he assumes is composed of people like himself – talentless mediocrities abandoned by God. Their only salvation is to replace God as an object of (self) adoration. Salieri is oblivious to the fact that he moves through a crowd of patients in a mental asylum.
I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. On their behalf I deny Him, your God of no mercy. Your God who tortures men with longings they can never fulfil. He may forgive me: I shall never forgive Him.
Mediocrities everywhere, now and to come: I absolve you all! Amen! Amen! Amen!
Theologically speaking, Salieri is guilty of Pelagianism. Pelagius (circa AD 360 – 418) rejected the concept of grace, maintaining that salvation is attained primarily by good deeds. For Salieri, God is the “Old Bargainer” and, therefore, God is not free to bestow His favours on whoever He chooses. However, when Salieri meets Mozart, he realises that God’s sovereignty is limitless. Pushkin, Shaffer and Forman reaffirm the role of grace in salvation. Amadeus is the reaffirmation of God’s freedom.
As a historical personality, Mozart is well suited to illustrate epochal changes occurring at the end of the eighteenth century. At that time, Europe was being reshaped politically, socially and artistically. The French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic era can be seen as the apogee of the Enlightenment but also as the first phase of Romanticism. Mozart belongs to Classicism in the history of music but he can also be perceived as a proto-Romantic. He lived in a period of transition, between Haydn and Beethoven. James H. Donelan writes in Poetry and the Romantic Musical Aesthetic that
Just as Kant, above all others, was the origin of the move of metaphysics toward aesthetics, so Mozart was the origin of the movement of music toward an elevated status as the highest of the arts. […] For some critics, Mozart was the quintessential Enlightenment composer, eminently reasonable, demonstrating a cool, mathematical perfection in everything he wrote. For others, Mozart was the proto-Romantic genius, erratic, uncontrollable, and destined to an early, impoverished end.
In Amadeus, three forms of transformation are occurring, namely the transformation from Classicism to Romanticism in musical aesthetics, the transformation of the concept of God as watchmaker into a God as a free creator, and the transformation of the society through the process of secularisation in politics.
In Romanticism, aesthetics is being infused with metaphysics. Music acquires religious dimension. Salvation occurs through art. E. T. A. Hoffmann writes in “Beethovens Instrumentalmusik” that music leads us out of life and into the realm of the infinite.
Music discloses to man an uncharted realm: a world that has absolutely nothing in common with the external, empirical world, a world that comprehensively encircles its empirical counterpart, a world to which the latter abandons all distinct sensations for the sake of surrendering itself to an inexpressible yearning.
Music gives us access to Being in its totality, without the mediation of Logos. The experience of Being cannot be verbalised: the truth about the Absolute and the Infinite can only be sung. Hence the role of music as as the highest of the arts. Music shows us how things really are; it is a phenomenal representation of the noumenal. The truth about the world is non-verbal. Music expresses Harmonia mundi by mystically conveying to us the meaning of the universe.
Mozart is Die Zauberflote, the flute of God. At the performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, Salieri says “I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theatre, conferring on all who sat there a perfect absolution. God was singing through this little man to all the world.”
The role of music changes in Romanticism because the concept of God is also changing. God is no longer a watchmaker who designed the universe as a giant mechanism, instituted the laws of Nature and then withdrew from the world. During the Enlightenment, God was essentially perceived as deified Necessity. Romanticism turned Him into an artist, if not a musician, who is free as a creator of the world. Feelings, not reason, permeate the world which is no longer a mechanism but a living organism. Salieri talks to God who does not answer. God uses arts in general and music in particular as a means of communion with His creation.
Amadeus is also about politics. It represents the political and social transformation which occurred during the French Revolution when subjects of a monarch, who was anointed with divine legitimacy, emancipated themselves and became free citizens. In feudalism, earthly political arrangements were the reflection of a heavenly order where God was not unlike a monarch in heaven. When feudalism crumbles, God also is being dethroned. Linda Woodhead writes in Christianity that
the modern world comes into being when power, rather than being seen as the possession of sovereigns and monarchs (earthly and heavenly) to whom individuals must submit their lives, comes to be seen as the possession of each individual subject. Since each one is sovereign in his or her own right, power is now thought to come from below, and to be bestowed by ‘the people’ on their rulers, rather than the other way round.
There are hints of things to come in Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, where servants are no longer satisfied with their lot. Die Zauberflote is even more subversive. Mozart was a Catholic and a Mason which was not an unusual combination at that time. He used Die Zauberflote as a platform to express his belief in the coming brotherhood of men.
The desire of an individual to free himself from the constrains imposed by the society is arguably the main preoccupation of Forman in all his films. It is also the main subject of Shaffer’s plays.
However, the matter of social and political emancipation is more complicated. At the end of the film, Salieri heralds the advent of a world without God, without art, and without metaphysics. This will be the world of Salieris in which there will be no place for Mozarts. Strangely enough, Salieri makes his prediction in a mental asylum.
His world is meant to be a utopia but it turns out as a dystopia. Equality seems to be inherently connected with mediocrity. This connection has been examined by many thinkers including Dostoevsky (Legend of the Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov), Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), de Tocqueville (Democracy in America) and Ortega y Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses).
Amadeus is a rare case of a successful film adaptation of a play which satisfied both the playwright and the film director. It seems that Shaffer and Forman had similar views about the world and both loved music as an art with metaphysical connotations.
The film itself is constructed as an opera. Music is not just an illustration added to a story but carries the plot and provides an interpretation of the events shown on the screen. Discontinuous editing is used by Forman to emphasise the structural role played by music. The role of fragments of Mozart’s operas is to signal different stages in Mozart’s life, from Die Entführung aus dem Serail (courtship), through Le nozze di Figaro (marriage) and Don Giovanni (Mozart’s relationship with his father), to Die Zauberflöte (Mozart’s message to the world). The film ends with the Requiem which serves as premonition of Mozart’s own death.
According to W. H. Auden, “No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.” The same can be said about Amadeus. Its story is not very sensible. There is no evidence that Salieri poisoned Mozart, Salieri was not a mediocrity, and Mozart was not a mythical artist who composed without any effort, almost an idiot-savant. Like in operas, the plot in Amadeus is subservient to music.
Formally, Amadeus is as artificial as any opera. Its meaning though is deep intellectually and engaging emotionally. Opera is a drama through music not merely a drama with music, and so is Amadeus.
Opera is an Italian invention and therefore necessarily connected with Catholicism. One can go as far as claiming a link between religion and opera. Elaborate liturgy of the Catholic mass is not unlike the spectacle of an opera whose aim is to dazzle the spectator. Seen from this perspective, opera is a secularised mass. A Baroque church is not that different from an opera stage.
Forman turned Shaffer’s cerebral play into a dazzling spectacle. He used Baroque interiors in his native Czechoslovakia to emphasise the role of visual sensitivity in Catholic Europe. Amadeus is a highly successful marriage of psychological depth of Shaffer’s play with Forman’s visual imagination. Amadeus has not lost its power since it was first shown in cinemas in 1984. It often appears on the lists of best films ever made.